Charlie Sykes, in The Bulwark morning email, muses about The Known Unknowns.
Are you not distracted?
Let’s be clear: last night’s targeted assassination of Qasim Suleimani was a victory for the U.S., a defeat for the Iranian mullahs, and condign punishment for an operative who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. Via the NYT: “General Suleimani was the architect of nearly every significant operation by Iranian intelligence and military forces over the past two decades, and his death was a staggering blow for Iran at a time of sweeping geopolitical conflict.”
So that much we know.
You can take issue with Sykes’ assertions about who got what from the assassination, but he continues with an assessment of what is to come.
What is not clear is (1) whether this actually makes the U.S. safer, (2) how far this will escalate the conflicts in the Middle East, and (3) whether we have a plan to handle the blow-back. and there will be blow-back; but we don’t yet know where, what, and how bad it will be.
Or, as Donald Rumsfeld put it so memorably:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
We have called something from the vasty deep. But what will come?
This is especially unknowable when we have a C-in-C who famously dismisses the advice of his generals, acts on impulse, and disdains his own intelligence community. “What could go wrong?” is not a rhetorical question here. The situation seems rife with the possibility for deadly miscalculations by both our friends and our enemies.
It would be great to think that the Mideast has suddenly become more stable, and America more feared and respected. But, by now we ought to have realized that the region is never predictable, alliances never certain, and we simply do not know how a single assassination might change history once again.
Here are more historical details via the Daily Beast: U.S. Braces for Iran’s ‘Counterpunch’ After Slaying of Soleimani. The consequences may not come quickly or directly. But they could be enormous.
“Some will celebrate, some will mourn, some will seek revenge,” said an Iraqi official as word spread in Baghdad on Thursday night that the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani had been killed in an American airstrike. But there is little question, the official added, that U.S. relations with Baghdad are in “real jeopardy.”
The consequences may not come quickly or directly. But they could be enormous. At their most dire, this strike may be the beginning of a much wider war in the Middle East—perhaps even the all-out war with Iran that Trump has said he wants to avoid.
In a tweet early Friday, Trump sounded a bellicose note: “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!”
I would add: and bombast never insulated us from the consequences of our actions.
The strike against Soleimani could also write the last chapter of the American saga in Iraq that began with the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew the tyrant Saddam Hussein in 2003.
More follows the break below. The Beast winds up with this.
Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American author and commentator, says Soleimani was “probably the second most important person in Iran” behind Ayatollah Khamenei. While seen as a villain by the U.S. for the past 15 years, Majd said, Soleimani commanded nationalist respect across Iranian factions as a hero fighting Iran’s enemies rather than directing domestic repression.
“He’s way more popular than any reformist,” Majd said, and that would include President Hassan Rouhani.
It’s not clear how carefully the Trump administration calculated the repercussions of killing such a figure, but those who follow the region closely are concerned about what lies ahead.
"We need to get ready for a major pushback,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump ally. “Our people in Iraq and the Middle East are going to be targeted. We need to be ready to defend our people in the Middle East. I think we need to be ready for a big counterpunch. This was a defensive act. If Iranian aggression continues we need to put their oil refineries on the target list. Iran needs to understand that we mean it. You’re not going to come after our people.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) said bluntly that “President Trump is bringing our nation to the brink of an illegal war with Iran without any congressional approval as required under the Constitution of the United States.”
Udall added, “Congress must step in immediately to reclaim its constitutional war powers.”
But it may be a little late for that.
Read the rest of the Beast’s historical recap of events leading to the assassination of Qasim Suleimani by the U. S.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom,” as it was called, also opened the door for Iran’s Islamic regime, which had fought against Saddam in open warfare and had supported many of the Shiite players who quickly took power once he was gone. Ever since, despite the trillions of dollars spent by Washington and the thousands of lives lost, efforts to limit Tehran’s growing power in Iraq have faltered. Iranian sympathizers and agents are deeply embedded at almost all levels of the government. That won’t change with the demise of Soleimani.
The Iraqi government invited the Americans out in 2011 by refusing to sign a status of forces agreement, then invited the U.S. back in when the American-trained Iraqi Army collapsed in the face of the so-called Islamic State. But most of the heavy fighting against ISIS on the ground was done by the Iranian-backed Shiite militias coordinated by Soleimani.
Over time, indeed, Soleimani became Tehran’s de facto proconsul in Iraq, which is why the many Iraqis sick of Iran’s influence were happy to see him eliminated. But the militias Soleimani helped build and support were fiercely loyal to him, and their revenge—with Iran’s blessing—is likely to be bloody.
Gen. David Petraeus, who led U.S. forces in the surge of 2007 against both Sunni and Shiite uprisings, told The Daily Beast it is “almost impossible to overstate the importance” of Soleimani’s termination. “There inevitably will be consequences in various locations, and it sounds as if we are posturing for them.”
“The ball is in Tehran’s court,” says counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, who worked closely with Petraeus during the surge. Iran’s options “include a wave of rocket attacks on Israel, Saudi, possibly the UAE, etc., and a surge of ground attacks on troops and bases in the region.” There is also the possibility, Kilcullen told The Daily Beast, of “more asymmetric or unconventional style hits in Europe, Africa, South America and/or the continental U.S.”
Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and former president of the National Iranian American Council, warned on Twitter that the “biggest risk for the U.S. may not be the Iranian response to Soleimani’s assassination. It may be that other elements, who Iran may not control, may start targeting the U.S.”
Among the Iraqis themselves, the passions on the street visible among those who have been protesting against Iran’s influence—those who celebrated Soleimani’s demise—and those seeking revenge for his death could plunge the country into a new era of savage civil war.
But the Iranians will always be next door, while the United States, especially under Donald Trump, appears to have no long-term commitment to Iraq’s future. Trump has said repeatedly he intends to end America’s “endless wars.” His actions in Syria and Afghanistan have underscored that position, and undermined confidence in American staying power.
Little is known about Soleimani’s early life, but he rose to prominence as a commander during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, where he forged crucial relationships with the cadre of senior officers who would go on to lead the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and take an outsized role in ruling Iran after the conflict ended.
His most important assignment came in the late 1990s when the IRGC assigned him command of the IRGC’s Qods Force, which serves partly as Iran’s covert action arm and also as a special forces unit building up proxy militias to help Iran spread its influence across the region. Many of those militias, most famously Lebanon’s Hezbollah, also carry out terrorist operations with Iran’s blessing and direction.
While the Qods Force represents only a small part of IRGC forces, its role as the tip of the spear in external operations made it the most notorious and well-known component of the IRGC.
For much of his tenure as Qods Force commander, Soleimani labored in relative obscurity, but after ISIS swept through Iraq threatening Iran’s borders and its allies in Baghdad, he branded himself as the very public face of the wars in Iraq and Syria as he posed for selfies on his Instagram account and instigated an unlikely publicity campaign for an officer whose responsibilities often lay in the covert world. Often, he seemed to be daring the Israelis, if not the Americans, to take him out.
Soleimani’s tenure in the Qods Force was shaped more than anything by confrontation with the U.S. The war on terror ousted the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, two regimes which Iran had sought to unseat itself. But it also brought a larger U.S. military presence to Iran’s doorstep, commanded by an administration that branded the Islamic Republic as part of an axis of evil.
In Iraq, Soleimani armed and trained an array of Shiite militias to attack the U.S.-led coalition with the aim of installing a government pliant to Iran’s wishes and pressuring the U.S.to leave. With the help of armor-piercing explosively formed projectiles, Iranian-backed forces killed 603 Americans in Iraq, making that war the bloodiest confrontation between the two countries, if only indirectly.
But as the U.S. war in Iraq wound down and the Arab Spring took hold, Soleimani and the Qods Force would take on a new and unlikely role as counterinsurgents, as well as insurgents. From 2011 onward, the Qods Force invested most of its time and energy helping the Assad regime crush protesters and rebels in Syria and, later, buttressing its allies in Iraq against the onslaught of the Islamic State.
At the same time, Soleimani’s cult of personality continued to grow.